The One about Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen

They were Germany’s powerhouse couple, filmmaker Fritz Lang who had a successful hit with “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler” (1922), the famous director would marry writer Thea von Harbou, the woman he helped writing her screenplay and helped her with the production of the adaptation of her 1917 novel “Das indische Grabmal” (The Indian Tomb).

The two worked together for the film “Der mude Tod” (Destiny) in 1921 but for von Harbou, she would continue to gain acclaim in 1922 for her adaptation of F.W. Murnau’s “Phantom” and the 1924 film “Die Finanzen des Grobherzogs” (Finances of the Grand Duke).

But as von Harbou was planning on her next novel known as “Metropolis”, before that novel, she would and Friz Lang would work together in what would become a major, epic collaboration between the husband and wife team.

Writing a detailed script for an adaptation of “Nibelungenlied” (The Song of the Nibelungs), an epic poem created between 1180-1210 in Middle High German and is a tragic story.

The script would be part of “Die Nibelungen” and be featured as two films “Die Nibelungen: Siegfried” and “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache” (Kriemhild’s Revenge). And suffice to say, the film was a success. Deemed as a form of German Expressionist through symbolism, it is said that “Die Nibelungen” was the inspiration for Sergei Eisenstein when he created “Alexander Nevski”.

At an event in Yale back in 1966, Lang said of “Die Nibelungen”, “I was interested in bring to life a German saga in a manner different from Wagnerian opera, without beards and so on. I tried to show in the “Nibelungen” four different worlds: the primeval forest, where lives the crippled Mime who teaches Sigfried to forge his sword, the dragon and the mystic subterranean realm of Alberich, the deformed dwarfish keeper of the Nibelung treasure, which he curses when slain by Siegfried. Secondly, the stylised, slightly degenerate, over-cultured world of the kings of Burgundy, already about to disintegrate. And finally the world of the wild Asiatic hordes of the Huns, and their clash with the world of the Burgundians (Who changed their names to Nibelungen after taking over their treasure).

Filmed in nine months, it was the most challenging film that Lang had undertaken in his career thus far. It pushed his crew to create something that has never been done but also to create a film knowing they will not have the budget, compared to something like a D.W. Griffith Hollywood drama. He and his wife, Thea von Harbou knew how to work around budget constraints, while Lang knew how to push people’s buttons but get the best out of them.

Working with a distinguished crew such as Carl Hoffman as cinematographer but also working with art direction courtesy of Otto Hunte and Karl Volbrecht, set decoration by Erich Kettelhut and Vollbrecht and costume design by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, it was a production that required the best in visual effects of that time period.

Atmospheric landscapes were built, Attila was inspired by etchings by Max Klinger and the German Expressionist of creating harmony, balance through its characters, its structures and architectural composition was important.

would have to find a way and von Harbou would have to accommodate any writing changes to reflect any changes that would be deemed to expensive.

So, during this time of German cinema, there was a lot of experimentation that Fritz Lang and his cinematographer Carl Hoffman would have to tinker with. For example, one scene in which the dwarfs are turned into stone by Alberich had to show a moment where the dwarfs are screaming. The other well-known cinematographer Gunther Rittau would find ways to come up with movie magic through superimposing images.

For Siegfried’s fight against the dragon, mechanisms were needed to be created in order to make the movement seem life-like. So, I can imagine for early 1920’s, how this film would be a marvelous achievement in visual effects in cinema. The crew was pushed to their limits and no matter how strict Lang was to pushing one over the edge, it led to the efficacy of the film as “Die Nibelungen” looks and feels like an alternate world that has come alive.

But as the first film was more of an introduction of characters, the first film was important in establish Siegfried and Kriemhild, King Gunther and Hagen as well as Brunhild and how far one would go into exacting revenge. Vengeance is a theme that shows no positive conclusion to either film as it only leads to tragedy.

For “Die Nibelungen: Siegfried”, viewers were probably in shock as what looked to be the films protagonist, finds himself betrayed by the same people he worked and cared for. The film was like an an adventure, a dream come true with tragic results.

But of course, Germans had a different interpretation of the film at that time. Marx-Engels wrote in 1840 for “Telegraph für Deutschland No. 197”, “Siegfried is the representative of German youth. All those among us whose hearts are still untamed by the oppressions of life know what this means. We are filled with the same thirst for action, the same resistance against the conventional… in us, the eternal weight up of things, the philistine fear of quick action is something we hate with all of our soul..we would like to tear down the barricade of circumspection.”.

While “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge” was a film that felt bittersweet, dark and vengeful. And because of that, I found it the most fascinating of the two films. Mainly to see how a woman, so full of love, would literally give her soul and her life to see the man who killed her beloved Siegfried, killed. And because she believes her life died when Siegfried was killed, but also when her family would do nothing but protect Hagen, the man who killed Siegfried, she is a woman on one mission. And that mission is to exact revenge on Hagen and to her, that is all that matters.

Suffice to say, people have various interpretations of this film. People are moved differently when watching this film. Sergei Eisenstein was inspired by “Die Nibelungen” and it would give him the inspiration to go on and create his own epic “Alexander Nevsky”, many debated the film because it was loved by Hitler and Goebbels and some even felt the film was anti-semitic and that the character of Alberich depicted in the film had Jewish features. In Lang’s defense, he did consult the Ulmlauff of the Hamburg Ethnographical Museum in order to capture the overall look of these characters.

I’m not an erudite on German history or culture, so I’ll leave it to the debaters to engage in polemic discussion. For me, personally, I saw this film as a good vs. evil storyline with tragic consequences. I know this is probably a bad example to use as a comparison, but in order to create a juxtaposition that some people reading this review will be able to understand, one can look at a film like “Star Wars” and see how one can be good, but easily consumed by darkness and vengeance.

In the first film, Siegfried and Kriemhild wore white and were the couple who were the symbol of love, Hagen and Brumhild in black and were symbols of darkness or instigators of tragedy. The second film, Kriemhild who was once the purist princess had become a dark queen. So dark that even Attila the Hun seemed as if he was weakened by his new wife. Nevertheless, a tragic film, an epic film with wonderful architecture and the scale of the many people who were involved as extras without having to go to extravagant when compared to D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film “Intolerance”.

But one can easily look back at the film and think, how things would have never gotten out of hand if Siegfried kept his mouth closed. Suffice to say, no lessons would be learn and this is based on a tragic poem. But you have to give credit to Thea von Harbou for taking on such a monumental task of crafting a screenplay with full detail and Fritz Lang for bringing that script to life in cinema.

For silent epics, I found “Die Nibelungen” to be a more engaging and accessible silent film because its story and actors are coherent. Sometimes, words do not need to be said and everything can be seen within one’s eyes. Actress Margarete Schon was fantastic as Kriemhild as you can easily sense the tragedy, the emotions of pain, happiness, sadness, love and evil. Sometimes, there are characters who tend to overact but when it matters most, it’s the look that you get from watching Margaret Schon, the eyes of Kriemhild and the transformation she goes from one film to the the second. An innocent flower to a cold-hearted queen.

And for decades, this film has continued to entertain audiences of different generations. I’m glad that Fritz Lang did not accept offers to remake “Die Nibelungen” because the film would lose have lost its luster and possibly be overacted or poorly acted. For the way they are now, these two films manage to be effective and highly entertaining as silent films that can never be duplicated.


 

Dennis A. Amith